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Tangible and Intangible Standards: The Argument for Teaching Novels and Dramas

Dear Dr. Louis,

I need your insight and expertise.

As so much continues to shift and change in our district, we have had more and more questions about all things related to English Language Arts (ELA) and literacy. Some folks believe that by teaching a novel, students have more difficulty practicing standards multiple times. They believe that passage work might be more effective for multiple practice opportunities with ELA standards.

I believe that I am not an “either/or” but more of a “both/and” kind of teacher and coach. I think a novel has its place, and I think good instruction (multiple practice opportunities) can still happen with a novel. I also think that shorter passages can be studied while exploring a novel. 

With all the ELA teachers you have encountered (across states and continents) is this issue becoming a dilemma with which folks are wrestling? Could you offer insight regarding how ELA teachers approach this question about reading novels in ELA classes vs. shorter passages in order to “prep” students for state assessments (at the same time, providing more skills practice)?

Thank you,

Kristi C.

Dear Kristi,

Thank you for your question. I am seeing this dilemma on a regular basis. And here is my response and my “not so humble” opinion. Nothing can replace the journey of a drama or novel. The benefits are more than I can name, but here are some of them:

  • We read literature in order not to feel alone, to feel a connection with humanity, and to learn from other generations and cultures. We discover characters who struggle with similar heartaches, joys, vices, virtues, depravity, goodness, epiphanies, weaknesses, and strengths as we. You might say, “Short stories provide the same.” To a certain extent, they do, but not to the degree and to the depth with which a novel or drama provides. The ebb and flow of life is played out in a novel, whereas a short story is – well – short and does not have as much time to delve into the inner recesses of the human condition. The journey of life is filled with ups and downs; so is the journey of a masterful novel and drama.
  • Reading a significant novel or drama builds stamina. In our current era of the need for immediate gratification, settling into a novel or drama teaches students that gratification also comes with hard work, serious study, and commitment. I find myself a little disappointed when I finish a novel or drama in which I have been immersed. I guess, in some ways, I have become one of the characters, as I have learned about the characters, their lives and struggles, and feel a part of the story through my imagination. I become part of the text.
  • I remember coming home after earning my undergraduate degree years ago. I visited my mother in the hospital. Before she died, my mother said, “Debbie Dear, I’m not going to leave you anything but this ring your father gave me and your education. Because no one can ever take away your education.” I think the same when reading a great novel. It’s always there. No one can ever take away what I enjoyed, what I experienced, and what I learned. Reading a novel or drama yields a sense of accomplishment, a sense of self. No standard or test score can measure this enlightened feeling.
  • Teachers and students become closer when they read novels and dramas together. They experience and share the journey and enjoy the exploration and discussions. Students practice critical thinking skills as they grapple with conflicts and the resolutions of those conflicts. Teachers learn so much about their students’ ideas and heartstrings; and, in return, students gain respect for teachers who have done their homework and are able to provide insight that no one else would have imagined! I am reminded of Sharon, an integral mentor in my teaching life. She was presenting a workshop on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Sharon said, “Why do you think Hester sewed such an elaborate and baroque letter ‘A’ on the bodice of her gown? Wouldn’t you think she would want to make it small so it would be hidden from view?” Some in the group talked about her being defiant. Others murmured among each other what they shared about this part of the novel with their students in their classrooms. But none of us really knew how to answer Sharon’s question. Sharon then reminded us of when we were all in high school and artfully drew the initials of our boyfriend(s) on our notebook(s). We looked at her inquisitively, and then we all realized that the “A” that Hester had so eloquently sewed stood for Arthur, her great, secret love. That’s why she had sewn it so ornately and so beautifully. Those moments make us smile and last forever! Another time, I was watching The Simpsons on television. Lisa and Bart had gone down to the dock to look for the missing Krusty, the Clown. When they entered the pilot’s cabin, the old sea captain was on the phone. And he said, “I’ll call you back, Ishmael!” When I shared that with the students, they looked at me with confusion and said, “So?” We opened Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and read the classic line “Call me Ishmael,” and I discussed “allusion” and the importance of cultural literacy. That’s why we study long works. We should expect our students to be thinkers and philosophers and thoughtful people. And to get the intelligent jokes! Long pieces teach them to develop these lifelong skills, appreciations, and standards.
  • With regard to standards and students practicing those standards and skills multiple times, any great classic has multiple opportunities to practice English language arts standards. In fact, look at your standards and select a handful to practice in any given novel. When I was a vertical team coordinator, we looked at our core literature and determined which specific skills and standards would be taught in the novels and dramas. Then we found dozens of opportunities in each novel. A team of teachers will find them. Divide and conquer. Determine the skills, divide the chapters among the group of teachers, and find those skills. They are there! Trust me. And feel free to contact me and ask for my novel skills spreadsheet!

Finally, like you, I recommend that we integrate short pieces, both fiction and non-fiction into the teaching of long pieces. With regard to writing, create a prompt that asks students to write short literary analyses and long expository pieces or vice versa. For example, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, teachers have many opportunities to teach many standards and ask students to write in the various modes of discourse:

  • Prompt #1:
    The Great Depression brought many unlikely people together. Carefully read about the Great Depression. Then, carefully read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. In a well-developed  multiparagraph essay, explain why this historical era brought unlikely characters together (1-2 body paragraphs; 2+:1; 1-2 chunks) and analyze how George and Lennie’s relationship evolves over the course of the novel (2-3 body paragraphs; 1:2+; 1-2 chunks per paragraph).
  • Prompt #2
    • Before you read — Of Mice and Men is about dreams (e.g., goals, hopes, and aspirations) that we have for our lives. In a well-developed multiparagraph essay (2-3 body paragraphs; 2+:1, 1-2 chunks), describe one dream of your own or of someone you know; explain how the dream was or will be brought to reality; and discuss the significance of that dream.
    • Midpoint of the novel — Of Mice and Men is about dreams that we have for our lives. Read the novel carefully. Then, in a well-developed multiparagraph essay (2-3 body paragraphs; 1:2+, 1-2 chunks), trace one of the character’s dreams; explain how that dream will be brought to reality; and discuss the significance of that dream.
  • Prompt #3
    • Before you read — The belief in the American Dream–the belief that anyone can achieve a better life through hard work–has always been an important part of the American character. John Steinbeck, however, is questioning the reality of this belief in his novel Of Mice and Men. Consider your own opinion. Then, in a well-developed multiparagraph essay, analyze the current status of the American Dream. Determine whether it is still possible and, if so, discuss the dreams Americans have these days that might differ from previous years. (2-3 body paragraphs; 2+:1, 1-2 chunks).

Thank you for reaching out! Keep reading and writing!

All the best,

Dr. Louis

Dr. Deborah E. Louis

Ph.D. in Humanities

Dr. Deborah E. Louis' passion for educational excellence began as a classroom teacher. For sixteen years, Deborah taught On-level, Pre-AP®, and Advanced Placement® English Language Arts to secondary students of diverse ethnicities and learning styles. In 2010, Deborah purchased the Jane Schaffer Writing Program®, and along with her non-profit organization, Center for Educational ReVision (CerV®), her goal and that of her national team of experts is to provide the highest quality professional learning and mentoring to teachers in the areas of writing, advanced academics, high-stakes testing, and educational technology. Through webinars, workshops, job-embedded training, and teaching materials, Deborah strives to ReVision the educational system, combining traditional and flipped approaches to professional learning for teachers of grades K-12; and differentiating for Special Education, English Language Learners, and Gifted and Talented. Although her mission takes her all over the United States and abroad, Deborah lives in Dallas, Texas USA. She loves music, dancing, archetypal psychology, and continuous learning opportunities.